In winning its first four games, Cincinnati did little more than prove it could handle itself at home against mostly outmatched foes.
In drilling No. 14 Illinois 71-51 on Monday night at the Hall of Fame Classic semifinals in Kansas City, Mo., the Bearcats showed they might have made an excellent offseason coaching hire.
Former North Carolina guard Wes Miller, who won 185 games and led UNC Greensboro to two NCAA Tournament berths in 10 years, is the first Cincinnati coach to begin his stint at the school with a 5-0 record.
Miller and the Bearcats aim to make it 6-0 on Tuesday night when they face 13th-ranked Arkansas for the tournament championship.
Of all the impressive things Cincinnati did to dismantle Illinois, the best might have been its poise after falling behind 23-8 just over eight minutes into the game. Instead of jacking up long jumpers and chucking the game plan, the Bearcats instead rattled off a 14-1 run to set the stage for rest of the game.
“It was our first time on a national stage and I thought the guys performed well,” Miller said. “After the first eight minutes or so, our team really started trying to guard the right way. I thought we did a nice job against a real good team.”
How nice was it? Cincinnati limited the Fighting Illini to 28.1 percent field-goal shooting and 3 of 22 from the 3-point arc. At one point, Illinois bricked 18 consecutive long-distance attempts, most of them with a hand in their face.
On offense, the Bearcats got 20 points from Mike Saunders on just six field-goal tries, thanks largely to 9-of-10 foul shooting. Jeremiah Davenport scored 19, sinking four 3-pointers.
It was the largest margin of victory for Cincinnati against a ranked team since routing No. 11 Georgetown 69-47 on March 5, 2011.
As for Arkansas (4-0), it appeared headed for an easy win when it roared out to a 42-24 halftime lead against Kansas State. However, the Razorbacks allowed the Wildcats to close within six points in the last minute before using the foul line to seal a 72-64 decision.
Five players reached double figures for Arkansas, led by Connor Vanover and Chris Lykes with 14 points each. The duo combined to make 18 of 19 foul shots, with Lykes canning eight straight in the 61 seconds to keep Kansas State at bay.
“That’s just my job as a guard, you know? Coach trusts us to have the ball in those situations at the end,” Lykes said. “We have to be able to knock down those free throws. Something we do every day, routinely. It’s just what is expected.”
Arkansas spent most of the second half appearing to milk the clock as much as it attacked, but coach Eric Musselman figured his team was going to win, even though the Wildcats were able to make the game interesting.
“I thought we did a good job from the 10-minute mark down utilizing clock management to the point where even if we didn’t score, it was going to be hard for them to overcome the lead,” Musselman said.
–Field Level Media